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By | July 30, 2007

      Sparkling Space Shuttle Endeavour Set To Launch Aug. 7, Phoenix On Friday

      Space Shuttle Endeavour received an enthusiastic thumbs-up during a pre-flight readiness review, with NASA officials giving the spaceship a “go” clearance to launch around 7:02 p.m. ET Aug. 7 from Kennedy Space Center (KSC), top space agency officials said.

      One official described the total renovation of the old space shuttle in terms normally reserved for, say, a complete frame-off restoration of a 1967 Mustang.

      The aging Endeavour now is “like a new space shuttle,” Wayne Hale, shuttle program manager, said. “It’s like driving a new car off the showroom floor.”

      While Endeavour may look like a legacy spaceship, it’s been updated with new components and new technology to make it far better than it was when new, according to Hale.

      For example, Endeavour in its new incarnation has Global Positioning System assets, in place of 1950s navigation gear, Hale noted.

      That means “it’s far safer … to fly our big glider … back home,” he said.

      Space shuttles only have powered flight in their giant motors during the ascent phase after launch. Later, when a space shuttle undocks from the International Space Station (ISS) and heads home, it has no power, making it essentially a multi-ton glider. That’s why it is critical that weather be good at the chosen shuttle landing site, because there is only one chance to put the wheels down on the runway.

      And the GPS gear is just one item on a voluminous list of new equipment installed during the shuttle renovation, Hale said.

      Beyond that, the spaceship has come through exhaustive testing well, he said. “We are pleased that [Endeavour] has come out so clean” from its pre-launch inspections and tests, he said.

      O-Rings OK

      There also is a minor problem with O-rings on the solid rocket boosters.

      These are seals that, if they fail, can have castastrophic results. For example, O-rings failed, perhaps because of cold weather, on Space Shuttle Challenger two decades ago, and the craft was destroyed shortly after liftoff. All crew members died, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.

      Ironically, her backup, teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, will be flying as part of the crew on Endeavour next week.

      But there is no danger of O-rings failing on the Endeavour flight, Hale indicated. “We are [convinced] the O-rings are safe to fly,” he said.

      The problem is that some rubber is improperly mixed in the O-rings, meaning there are some stiff, inflexible spots in the rings.

      But a NASA spokesman in Washington said tests showed the O-rings “all met the specifications.” O-rings always have contained the minor blemishes, and while there was a slight increase in the number of those spots in the rings when manufacturing operations switched from Kentucky to Tennessee, the rings still meet specifications, the spokesman said. Further, each ring is X-rayed to ensure there aren’t too many trouble spots in one place.

      “There is no less resiliency” to the rings now than when they were manufactured at the old site previously, he said.

      Michael Leinbach, shuttle launch director, extolled the improvements to Endeavour.

      For example, the spaceship spent 1,665 days being worked on in the Orbiter Processing Facility.

      More than 1 million new parts were added to the bird, one of the most complex machines ever built.

      There were 13,156 checks on hardware, and 2,045 heat tiles were replaced.

      Endeavour now is at KSC launch pad 39A, ready to begin Mission STS-118 to the space station, an 11-day voyage that might be extended by three days to a full two weeks.

      Aside from mission specialist Morgan, the crew includes Commander Scott Kelly, Pilot Charlie Hobaugh and mission specialists Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio, Alvin Drew and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams.

      They are to arrive at KSC at 5 p.m. ET Friday for final launch preparations. The countdown is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Saturday.

      During the mission, the crew will add another truss segment to the expanding station, install a new gyroscope on the complex and add an external spare parts platform. The flight will include at least three spacewalks. The crew will debut a new system that enables docked shuttles to draw electrical power from the station to extend visits to the outpost. If this system functions as expected, three additional days will be added to the STS-118 mission.

      The mission will be Endeavour’s first flight in more than four and a half years. It last flew in 2002, before the 2003 flight of Space Shuttle Columbia, a mission that ended in tragedy. During liftoff, a chunk of foam insulation broke away from the Columbia external fuel tank, smashing an undetected hole in the leading edge of a wing on the orbiter vehicle. Later, upon heading back to Earth, fiery hot gases of reentry rushed into the wing and heated it to the point of structural failure. The ship and crew were lost.

      To ensure that doesn’t occur with Endeavour, it has been upgraded with all the safety features and flight procedures that were added to other shuttles — Atlantis and Discovery — so that Endeavour is equally unlikely to suffer any undetected holes or other damage,

      There has been no impact on the Endeavour launch plans caused by a machinists’ labor union strike in Florida, officials said. “It has [caused] no impact to us,” Leinbach said, aside from a slight increase in overtime for some personnel.

      Friday Phoenix Launch

      Separately, NASA is poised to launch the Mars landing craft Phoenix, with a liftoff set for Friday from launch pad 17A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

      There are two instantaneous launch times, 5:35:18 and 6:11:24 a.m. ET Friday.

      The NASA Launch Services Program at KSC is responsible for the launch of Phoenix aboard a Delta II rocket.

      United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of The Boeing Co. [BA] and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], is conducting the launch service for NASA.

      Should the launch be postponed 24 hours for any reason, the launch times are 5:26:31 and 6:02:55 a.m. ET. For a 48-hour postponement, the launch times are 5:17:23 and 5:53:59 a.m. ET.

      It is critical to launch Phoenix in this window, to avoid a long wait until the next window. The craft, upon reaching Mars, will dig into soil in northern areas of the planet to search for water, or evidence of water. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, July 16, 2007, page 6.)

      Mars Rovers Still Blitzed

      Mars Rovers Opportunity and Spirit last week still were pummeled by dust storms so intense they partially block out direct sunlight that the rovers require to perform any major work.

      Therefore, rovers have been limited in their activities, to conserve electrical power required to maintain them at operating temperatures during cold nights.

      NASA is unsure when the storms may abate, and unsure just what shape the rovers may be in when stronger sunlight becomes available.

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